Debt and Credit

Date: May 18, 2014 Category:

Debit and Credit

Credit and Debit: The relationship between credit and debt is a complex one: the terms are both opposites (a creditor lends money and a debtor borrows money) and yet the same (to have credit is to get debt). The visual cultures of finance have paid particular attention to the parallels and contradictions between the two terms. Credit is often represented as a form of escape, and has been associated since the eighteenth century onwards with travel of all kinds, especially with newly emerging forms of flight. Debt, on the other hand, is often represented as a dead-end and even a form of imprisonment. The visual history of credit is thus the promising history of bubbles and booms whilst that of debt is that of moral condemnation.

Public Credit: Modern credit was realised from a debt. The Bank of England was created during the ‘Financial Revolution’ of the early eighteenth century as a private entity, inaugurated in order to manage the national debt. The Bank of England managed the national debt by issuing paper money and Government bonds. The value of ‘public credit’ is thus reliant on the value of the paper money and interest-bearing bonds that are issued by the Government and this ability to create money from nothing has been a cause of recurring anxiety. The fear that Governments will abuse this power, print too much money and cause inflation or print too little money and contract the economy, recurs across the centuries: it was present during the financial revolution and it was present during the recent process of ‘Quantitative Easing’ (printing money) that followed the financial crisis of 2007-8.

Goldin+Senneby, Headless (2008) with John Barlow (writer), Angus Cameron (economic geographer), K.D. (fictional author), Kim Einarsson (curator), Anna Heymowska (set designer), Johan Hjerpe & Filip Tydén (graphic designers)
Thomas Gokey, $49,983: Total Amount of Money Rendered in Exchange for a Masters of Fine Arts Degree to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Pulped into Four Sheets of Paper (2012) Courtesy of the artist. Photo credit photo credit to Matt Gubancsik
A Rake's Progress, plate 4, (1735), William Hogarth (1697-1764), Etching and engraving on paper, ©Tate, London 2013
James Gillray, Midas, transmuting all, into paper (1797), hand-coloured etching © Trustees of the British Museum

In this image the debtor’s prison is represented as a darkened space of shame and madness. Yet this image also explores the close connections between debt and credit: in the corner of the room one of Tom’s cellmates has depicted ‘A New Scheme for paying ye debt of ye Nation’ and the reference clearly suggests the financial crisis of 1720, so infamously allegorised by Hogarth’s Emblematical Print on the South Sea Scheme, in which the privatisation of money, the scheme established as a rival to the Bank of England of itself, led to a bubble that went so disastrously wrong.

In the late Eighteenth Century William Pitt, both Prime Minister and Chancellor at the time, struggled to maintain the balance between a burgeoning national debt and the confidence and belief in public credit. These struggles were identified in the satirical cartoons of the era, which often showed the fear that paper money was being used to fuel Government excess, especially in its military adventures. In images from the 1790s by satirists William Dent and James Gillray, for example, we see paper money being represented as both a source of incontinent and despotic power (that turns the real value of gold into mere paper) and as an endless juggling act (as public credit is used to pay the national debt)

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